Land War: Land barons responded with murder after Indians in Honduras organized to recover their land.


September 30, 1992, at 7 a.m., while driving in Yoro, Honduras, Vicente Matute was shot to death at point-blank range with a shotgun. At least two unidentified assassins fired several shots at the president of the Xicaque Indian Federation.

Francisco Guevara, a prominent member of the Plan Grande Xicaque Tribe, was killed almost instantly with massive head injuries, probably from the same shot that killed Matute. Matute was helping Guevera in a dispute with a powerful local landowner.

Another shot hit Dionisio Martínez, who was riding in the back of the vehicle. He is the elected cacique (indigenous leader) of the Santa Rosita Xicaque. The subsequent car crash broke both his ankles.

Matute's 22-year-old nephew, Alberto Matute, also seated in the rear, leapt from the van after the second shot, hit his head, and lay stunned and frightened for several minutes. He doesn't know why the assassins didn't kill him.

The van, with Matute's body slumped over the wheel and his foot on the gas pedal, crashed through a barbed-wire fence and plunged into a gully. When Alberto recovered, he heard the horn blowing and scrambled down the embankment. He found Vicente dying and unable to speak, Guevera dead, and Martínez pinned.

Matute's killing is not an isolated incident. According to Human Rights Watch World Report, 1992, rural violence in honduras increased significantly last year. The report attributes murders like that of Matute of peasant invasions of land and the lethal reactions of land-holders.

In part this characterization is correct, but, more important, it downplays both the systematic and the ethnic nature of the violence. The Xicaque are not faceless peasants, nor are they violating private property and invading the territory of legitimate landholders. On the contrary, they are the legitimate owners of the land; it is their rights that are being violated. The current wave of rural violence is part of a much larger struggle for land rights in which the Xicaque have been involved for over a century

The Xicaque have paid a price for insisting that their land titles be respected. The Federation of Xicaque Tribes of Yoro (FETRIXY), which represents over 20,000 Xicaque, reports that 18 of the tribe's leaders have been murdered since the group began serious efforts to forge ethnic political solidarity in the late 1980s. Seven leaders died in 1991 alone.


The background of the killings is a classic American tale of disease, invasion, resistance, and slow ethnocide by colonization and state institutions. The Spanish conquest affected the Xicaque (also known as Tolup n - speaking the Tol language) as early as 1524, when Hernando de Soto entered into the interior of Honduras. Indians who survived European diseases and forced labor in Spanish gold mines found refuge in the remote mountains and valleys of Yoro in north-central Honduras where they reestablished their communities.

Under Honduran law, many of the Xicaques' claim to this mountain land dates from the nineteenth century. In 1864, the Catholic Church applied for land titles for Xicaque communities that accepted the presence of Catholic missionaries. Each of these land-holding communities is a contemporary "tribe," and the government of Honduras still recognizes the 1864 titles. Many tribal boundaries even have stone markers.

However, having title to land is no guarantee of land security. In much of rural Honduras, the rule of the gun means more than the rule of law. Ranchers and their employees commonly wear six-guns in the departments of Yoro and Olancho, and homicide by gunshot is the most common cause of death for men from 20 to 40 years of age. So it was that the Xicaque began to lose their lands through usurpation and threat rather than any legal process. As northern Honduras developed after 1864, ranchers invaded the valleys of Yoro. To make room for extensive cattle pastures, the ranchers destroyed the broadleaf tropical forest in the shadow of the Nombre de Dios Mountains. The cattlemen took over the flatter lands of the river and stream drainages, pushing the Xicaque to higher ground, steeper slopes. Dominated by pine forests, often with thin soils, these areas remained in Xicaque hands until the 1950s.

Yet even in the highlands, Xicaque control didn't last. Salvadorans, fleeing the landlessness engulfing their country, discovered she remote Xicaque mountain valleys. After the 1969 "soccer war" between the two countries, many Salvadorans left Honduras, but others filled their places. "Around 1954, the area began to fill with people until it was overwhelmed," recalls a cacique of a tribe on the north side of the main valley of Yoro. His tribe's land was heavily invaded by squatters.

He adds:

Ay! In the mountains there was land, and they took it, took it to make properties, coffee fields, cattle pastures, houses, and the land has been taken over.

[We talked] to some of them. But most of the squatters weren't aware of our rules. They weren't aware that we had titles. They thought that we, the indigenous people, had nothing.

By 1991, ladino (non-indigenous) invaders occupied as much as 90 percent of the lands of some tribes. In addition, what the Xicaque term land barons (terratenientes) had consolidated the holdings of some of the smaller squatters. These major landholders wanted more space to graze cattle and also began taking over the water sources that were vital to Xicaque communities. Moreover, as the "coffee frontier" advanced, conflicts arose even over hilly lands that the Xicaque had established as theirs through frequent cropping cycles.


Following the pattern in many indigenous communities around the world, Xicaque political organizing came only in response to threats from outside. In 1977, alarmed by the invasions of their lands, the Xicaque began to unite the tribes so they would have a national voice. The Xicaque and other groups, supported by the National Peasant Association of Honduras (ANACH), persuaded the government to form the National Committee of Indigenous Tribes (CONATRIN), which included 17 of the 27 Xicaque tribes.

However, CONATRIN died in 1978, partly due to government manipulation and partly due to a growing distrust of ANACH. It was followed by another federation in which 21 Xicaque tribes participated. The National Tribal Federation for the Liberation of the Honduran Indian (FENATRILIH) lasted two years. According to the Xicaque, it failed principally for lack of funds and its lack of grassroots representation.

Disappointed at these attempts to forge a national organization before strong local groups existed, the Xicaque formed the Federation of Indigenous Tribes of Yoro (FETRINY) in 1980. This effort had some success in getting the government to initiate development that would benefit indigenous people.

Nevertheless, FETRINY was not very strong at the local, regional, or national levels. Thus, with support from HIVOS, a Dutch nongovernmental organization, it began to pay more attention to local organization. In 1985, FETRINY evolved into the present-day FETRIXY, which is exclusively Xicaque.

By 1987, FETRIXY was strong enough to begin a program aimed at recovering tribal lands. At El Palmar in May 1987, FETRIXY mobilized 400 people from 14 tribes for 22 days to occupy tribal territory being threatened by organized ladino peasants. Lendingcredence to the earlier indigenous mistrust of ANACH, the peasant organization supported these would-be squatters. FETRIXY won the court battle that followed the occupation and began to see the effectiveness of mass mobilization as a mechanism to recover lands.

A year later, in May 1988, FETRIXY led another land-recovery operation in the area of the San Esteban Tribe on lands illegally claimed by Francisco Zúñiga sued and a local judge ordered the 23 Xicaque families occupying the ground to leave. Despite the fact that one of the 1864 titles covered the land in question, two FETRIXY leaders and a FETRIXY extension agent were pronounced guilty of land invasion. Although the leaders were soon released, the rancor didn't end, and Zúñiga threatened them several times over the next few years.


Vincente Matute, a member of the Agua Caliente de Guardarr m Tribe and a resident of Plan Grande, was 37 years old when he died. He had been shaped by the land struggles of the Xicaque during his entire adult life. In 1974, at the age of 19, the Catholic relief organization C ritas had chosen him for leadership training. A year later, he led a defense of 64 acres of his tribe's lands being occupied by a ladino squatter. He was named vice-cacique of the tribe, but the squatter re-occupied the land after threatening Matute's life so often that he had to flee his village.

In Yoro, Matute worked for C ritas until 1984, when he was elected a delegate to the congress that gave birth to FETRIXY. In 1985, he became vice-president of FETRIXY; in 1987, he assumed the presidency. As president, his concern with land issues led him to seek strategies to regain Xicaque land, and, in January 1991, FETRIXY began a concentrated, planned program to recover land parcel by parcel. The effort, if executed, will take decades to complete.

By May 1991, the Xicaque had won the sympathy of Juan Ramón Martínez, director of Honduras's National Agrarian Institute (INA). In a ceremony in Yoro, Martínez awarded provisional titles on the basis of ancestral possession to the tribes of Luquique, Mina Honda, Santa Rosita, El Paraíso, and El Hollo, tribes that hadn't held titles under the 1864 provision. He also provided new titles to two tribes whose original ones local ladino authorities had seized and burned. In Santa Marta, home to one of the tribes whose title had been burned, a local ladino authority declared, "Callejas doesn't govern here." (Rafael Leonardo Callejas is president of Honduras.)

However, later in the year, Martínez had to resign. One reason, it is said, was his support for the Xicaque. And the consequences of Xicaque activism were lethal to the Xicaque themselves.

On May 18, 1991, 8,000 Xicaque marched in Santa Marta de Plan Grande, which sits on the outskirts of the city of Yoro and possesses much valuable flat valley land. FETRIXY called the march to protest the rejection by local authorities of the INA titles. One of the protesters, Natalia Castillo, a member of the Anicillo tribe, was killed when she reached her home after the march. And during the protest, local ladinos directly threatened Matute: "You're laughing now, but you won't be laughing with a bullet in you."

Another Xicaque leader recalls:

An anonymous phone caller told me that I better watch myself because someone was going to kidnap me. I understood it as psychological warfare, a psychological threat they wanted to make. I couldn't quite believe it, but I couldn't stop [what I was doing] either. Vicente told me the same thing in September. He told me that they were going to kill him, and that they would kill me, too.

On July 11, Daniel Castro Bieda, an informal leader in a Xicaque tribe, was tortured and killed at La Bolsita. He was strung up, and his face mutilated with a machete.

On September 13, Amareo Medina, a leader in the tribe of Guajiniquil, was shot near the site of a land-recovery action. He survived.

On September 17, Marcelino Polanco, a member of the tribal council of the Subirana, was shot to death in a grocery store. The incident revolved around drinking water on the tribe's lands that local ladinos wanted.

Two weeks later came the murder of Matute and Guevara. No one knows exactly why they were killed, but an anonymous phone caller told FETRIXY that local elites plotted the assassination at a Rotary Club meeting in Yoro. At Matute's wake, in the Catholic cathedral in the heart of Yoro, tempers ran hot. When the priest arrived in his car, a local ladino threatened him with a gun.

The attacks continued through the year. On November 3, Mario Alvarado of the Cerro Bonito community at Plan Grande defended a woman who had lost her house. He was killed with a machete the same day. The woman whose house he tried to save was jailed. At that time, 20 Xicaque were in jail over land issues.

On December 24, Florencio C ceres, a member of the Dos Pozos community, was shot in the heart by Santos Rodríquez, a local squatter on tribal lands. dos Pozos had been the site of a FETRIXY attempt to get back lands that had water on them, and Rodríguez had taken water from C ceres' coffee field without permission. When C ceres complained to local officials, they put him in jail instead of Rodríguez. C ceres was killed six days after a judge ordered his release.


The Xicaque are unlikely to forget Vicente Matute. He has become a martyr and a symbol of their cause. Many demonstrations have protested his death, and the issue continues to be voiced. In September 1992, a national conference of CONPAH (Coordinadora Nacional de Pueblas Autóctones de Honduras) had as its motto, "Vicente Vive" (Vicente Lives).

FETRIXY leaders are concerned for their own lives as the psychological war on them continues. Few weeks go by without anonymous threats of death or kidnapping. For the time being, caution reigns. No more land recuperation actions have taken place since Matute's murder, although the strategy is still central to FETRIXY's long-term plan. Nevertheless, two Xicaque tribal members have died by violence in 1992 at the hands of ladinos.


Cultural Survival is supporting a feasibility study by World Neighbors that will result in an agricultural project with the Xicaque to try to grow more on less land. The Xicaque have also expressed an interest in a project that would put attorneys in the field to help pursue land cases and train local leaders in their legal rights.

Your donations for this project are urgently needed. Send them to Cultural Survival Central American Program, 1101 N. Highland St., Suite 405, Arlington, VA 22201. Please include a note earmarking your contribution for Xicaque.

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